My city-raised daughters are certain that I grew up in the countryside, despite my protestations that it was a suburb. True, we did have an unusually large number of pets. These included two geese, a couple of dogs over the years, and at one point, we had a total of 14 cats if you included kittens. We also cycled through goldfish, which died and were replaced with others that we won at games on the 4th of July, a turtle, guinea pigs, and a canary named Caruso that chirped excitedly whenever my mother played the piano and sang.
Had we been a rich family, our amateur zoo would have been considered “eccentric,” but since we were common suburban folk it was simply a case of too many pets.
Other faux country traits of ours include — according to my daughters — not being able to go anywhere without a car, knowing all of our neighbors and what car they drove, and spending summers being so bored that we drank extremely bubbly soda pop and then recorded our burps on a tape recorder. I need not point out that these are less aspects of country life than they are of large portions of 1970s American life in general. Except perhaps the recording of soda pop burps.
By contrast, my father truly was from the countryside, from northern Illinois, the land of endless cornfields. He worked summers on a neighboring farm, owned by a couple appropriately named Amos and Allie. Growing up, I recall how he started tomatoes from seed in egg cartons on the windowsill. His favorite hobby was picking blackberries, which he brought in by the bucketful for my mother to bake blackberry pie. She was from northern Illinois, too. All that is missing from this tranquil picture of country habits is a rascally boy, perhaps wearing a straw hat if one has read too much Mark Twain, stealing said pie from the window sill while it was cooling.
I naturally picked up some of the habits and knowledge of my father. This especially applies to observations about nature, such as what a cornfield looks like during different stages of growth. I assumed that everybody knew these things, and was surprised to discover that this definitely did not apply to my husband.
So it happened that several years ago, after a bike trip through northern Italy, I called my father. I was brimming with…